Monster Movie Gar

Chaos of landing a thrashing, toothy alligator gar makes anglers relieved upon release

Article by Tommy Sanders

Photo of Mark Zona and Tommy Sanders catching an alligator gar
Mark Zona gets in on the action, hooking horns as Sanders holds one of North America's largest exclusively freshwater fish ((Kirk Kirkland photo)

Since I grew up in the land of murky slack water and slow moving creeks and rivers, I never had to worry about things like bull sharks, barracudas or great whites. And while tales of piranha frenzies titillated and made the skin crawl, I could rest assured that they were at a safe distance, a hemisphere away.

There was only one thing in the waters of my world that could “git ya.”  It was a giant devil fish with foot-long rows of sharp teeth, capable of ambushing you and carrying you down to an underwater feast for one.

That was what an alligator gar was all about, we were told by them who loved to tell such tales.

Photo of a giant alligator gar taken from Moon Lake, MS in 1910
A giant Alligator Gar taken from Moon Lake MS., was worthy of a photograph in 1910. (courtesy of Dept. of Library Service, American Museum of Natural History)

Of course, an alligator gar would do no such thing to person, it turned out. Still it’s a fish that has remained in the monster movie section of my imagination all these years, as I’ve looked at dozens of mounts of them on walls of obscure hardware stores and bait shops and run across photos of 1950s archers in pith helmets plowing arrows into thrashing silvery things the size of a canoe.

Last July, my pal Mark Zona arranged for me to have a shot at catching one of these monstrosities when he was kind enough to invite me onto his excellent TV show for a shoot on the Trinity River near Palestine, Texas.

There we met up with Capt. Kirk Kirkland, the undisputed authority on catching big gar. After loading up two flat bottom aluminum boats, we set off downstream in the light brown waters of the Trinity which drains, among other things, the storm sewers of Dallas, sanitized for your protection.

The Trinity is the perfect place for gar fishing because it is full of forage fish like carp and sheepshead and also because it gives access to a perfect spawning area in the flats of Lake Livingston, several miles downriver.

We traveled for a half hour or so and stopped in a slight river bend to set up the Captain’s incredibly effective system: big spinning reels on reasonably stiff rods, with heavy braid down to a leader and hook baited with about half a pound of cut buffalo carp. Fling the carp into the light current and put the rod on a rod holder on the bank. The reel is set to the “baitrunner” position and the line near the reel is threaded through a small radio transmitting motion detector.  Do this four times and find some shade from the 103-degree heat.

It was only a short wait until the walkie talkie in the boat picked up the alarm from one of the motion detectors.

Zona perks up. “I love that sound. The ice cream truck is here!” he says with a maniacal laugh.

We get to the rod, grab it, and follow the yellow bobber on the line as the gar takes it down river. When the bobber stops, Capt. Kirk gives the signal: “set the hook real hard!”

Until that moment, the river had been as quiet as any place on earth. I swear we had not seen another boat, house, powerline or anything else related to civilization all morning, save a solitary cow.

Photo of a hooked alligator gar
A hooked Aliigator Gar flashes its pearly whites as it thrashes alongside the boat. (Tommy Sanders photo)

But then Zona starts reeling and the whole world erupts. Shouting,  stomping, laughing, groaning and most of all, thrashing, because these gar love to jump -- and not out there 50 or 100 feet, like some bluewater charter, but right there in front of your face as you stand in the small metal boat and wonder what is going to happen next.

Zona has the perfect description of it: a quiet day at the zoo until the monkey house erupts.

After about 15 minutes of this chaos, the fish is alongside the boat. But this rodeo is far from over as Kirk ropes it at each end and brings it in. The thrashing cranks up full speed again and the feeling is like being in a phone booth with an out-of-control chainsaw. Nowhere to hide.

A few moments later the gar calms down and is hoisted into Zona’s arms and the pictures are taken before the 120-pounder is slipped back into the Trinity with some gas left in the tank. What just happened here?

I get the next shot and we start the melee all over again. The camera crew says my legs are shaking like some anemic piano mover as I reel and slip on the now slimed-over boat deck. Another over 100 pounds comes in the boat, goes bezerk again and even puts a nice tooth hole in my sneaker.

There’s no feeling like holding a still-fuming giant fish in your arms with those teeth a foot away from your face. But that’s the way Kirk does it and he says it’s been weeks since he’s had to take someone to town for stitches and antiseptic.

We would boat three over 100 pounds that morning, along with a few smaller ones and a 30-pound catfish. So far beyond my expectations, I still wonder if I just dreamed it all.

Kirk tells us later that it’s a really healthy fishery as long as it’s a catch-and-release proposition. But the sun needs to set on the archery side of it, unfortunately. It takes too long to grow the breeding stock to keep the whole thing going, so the math doesn’t work when you kill them.

Anyway, the fight is the thing, and there’s nothing wrong with both parties living to fight another day. Since the gar have been around for something like 100 million years, I’ll vote for keeping them around. 

Photo of an alligator gar in a fish tank
Aliigator Gar are popular in display tanks of some state wildlife departments for education purposes. They have also recently become "trophy" fish for private aquariums, particularly in Japan, where a large specimen could fetch $40,000 on the black market. (Wikipedia)